In December, we came together in a spirit of sharing, to celebrate mid-winter. Each person in the group shared something that was meaningful to them, some said poems, others talked about their experiences, and others about the meaning of this moment in the year. We listened, talked and were moved by each other! After this sharing we ate the seasonal food to which we had all contributed and had a lovely social time!
The Psychology and Physics of Consciousness
This month Chris Clarke, former professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Southampton, and since 1999 free lance researcher and writer, came to talk about the subject matter of his new book <I<>Knowing, Being and Doing published by Imprint Academic in October 2013. Chris started his talk by explaining what he means by consciousness. He referred to Nagel who famously wrote about What it is like to be a Batreferring to consciousness as the qualitative aspect of me-ness, or what it is like to be me ‘ for an organism. It is an entirely subjective experience, no formula possible. He pointed to the work of Teasdale, Barnard and McGilchrist who amongst others identify a dichotomy of who we are. McGilchrist focuses on the workings of the right and left brain, Teasdale and Barnard expand on the implicational and propositional aspect of thought, Heidegger the Being and the Doing, Buber the I-though and I-it relation and so on. In quantum physics the dichotomy is the aspects of consciousness/observation, and field/state (characterised by logic). From those dichotomies, the focus is on the first mentioned in the above list, (in his presentation, the left column) which can be defined as the subjective, experiential aspect. He further called on philosopher Kant who famously said that we cannot know a thing itself, or das Ding and Sich, implying that all knowledge is a combination of self (and all the subjectivity this means) and what is offered by the universe. The upshot is that we can continuously enlarge our perception but this will always be anchored on who we are and what we (from where we are) observe. From the physics side Chris showed how the thinking on quantum theory evolved from early 20th C to the point in which scientists became aware that the observation itself has an effect on the observed. The element of observation is carried out by consciousness, which is where quantum and consciousness intersect. Although no theory of the interrelation is possible, no facts can be proposed but the connection can be evaluated by modelling, by describing how consciousness affects a quantum system. Chris takes a panpsychic view of the universe, by which everything it in has a degree of consciousness. We had a lively discussion after the presentation, with some interesting perspectives observed. His website is:
The Role of ‘Heroic’ Learning Communities in the Postmodern Era
October brought us Prof Richard Tarnas, professor of psychology and cultural history at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, where he founded the graduate program in Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness. Rick is also the author of Passionthe of the Western World and Cosmos and Psyche which in 2006 won the SMN Book Prize. Rick started by explaining what he means by ‘Heroic’ learning communities. The term was borrowed from Charles Taylor’s work Sources of the Self, in which he describes the make-up of the Hero and his journey. The Hero archetype breaks into new territory seeking the transcendent wisdom of a higher truth. This is the characteristic of all the great characters of the Axial Age, Buddha, Lao-Tsu, Jesus, Socrates etc. ‘Heroic’ communities are to society what the Hero is to the individual. Rick described the world in which we live in the West as one in which the post Enlightenment disenchantment of the world, led to an objectification of reality. The Cosmos no longer embodies the spiritual domain. Nothing is sacred any more. The utilitarian mindset empowers the centres of Power and Profit as twin drivers of society. Spiritual hunger however still exists and this is pacified by consumerism which as an end result, cannibalises the Planet because people cannot get enough of what they don’t really need. Heroic communities are those holding on to our ontology and epistemology as spiritual beings. They have a common language and are helping us to go through this deconstruction of our old identity, this dark night of the soul – and identify a source of meaning and purpose to carry us into a new reality. Amongst such ‘Heroic’ communities are organisations such as the SMN, IONS, the Anthroposophic Rudolph Steiner Institutes, the Wrekin Trust, Findhorn and so on.
Emergence, Top Down Causation and Reductionism
This month we were privileged to host a talk by Prof George Ellis, Professor Emeritus at the University of Cape Town. George specialises in general relativity theory and cosmology, he also works in complexity theory and the way the mind works. This evening’s talk was a subject at the heart of philosophy and of interest to anyone who wonders how the world works!
We are used to hearing about the bottom up process of causality, where lower levels are building blocks for higher level properties and processes. Not dismissing this reality, George made a powerful case for the consideration of the reverse process, by which lower levels are in fact determined by properties of higher hierarchical levels. These create possibilities by constraints. As an example, if gas is constrained by its environment, it will change its state to liquid. This outcome (which also results in increased order) has been effected not by a bottom up but by a top down process, the environment. George gave us a wealth of examples from physics, cosmology physiology as well as computers, society and others, showing outcomes causally determined in top-down hierarchical processes. Taking the example of computers he explained that there are over 10 hierarchical levels of programming all independent from each other. It is the highest level however, the software, that determines how the lower levels within the computer operate. Top down causation in some cases changes the nature of constituent parts. For instance cells in a foetus start off undifferentiated but will have their task allocated by the higher level ‘ the organism. Higher level causality is also shown when lower levels cannot exist without the higher level context as with cells which can only exist naturally inside the higher hierarchical level, the body.
Following the many examples in support of his theory, George tackled Crick’s statement in his Astonishing Hypothesis, that ‘a person’s mental activities are entirely due to the behavior of nerve cells, glial cells, and the atoms, ions, and molecules that make them up and influence them’. Too many influential higher level properties have been left out for this consideration to be true, but what I found particularly interesting was George’s critique of the random choice of bottom line as cells, atoms and ions. The truth is that we don’t know what the bottom line is. As the constant discovery of new particles and their behaviour shows, we may never know for sure what the bottom level is and the preferential but arbitrary choice of one does not make for good science. In the discussion that followed, many in the audience showed their interest or familiarity with the subject and we had stimulating comments and queries.
The Dimensions of Spirituality
In August we welcomed David Rousseau PhD who has a high profile presence in a number of academic institutions in the UK and comes from a background of Systems Engineering. For his PhD thesis he used his 20 years experience in high technology project management to analyse problems in philosophy of mind and the scientific study of spirituality through the lens of systems analysis. He is currently doing research into the ontological foundations of moral intuition. This evening he introduced his theory that spiritual intuitions are reactions to qualities we apprehend in nature and are therefore part of the natural order. Being spiritual is as natural as being physical. David’s argument was supported by a variety of scientific studies in different disciplines, which have increased dramatically over the last decade. He pointed to the sharp increase in interest in the field of spirituality as shown by the numbers of papers on the topic in academic databases which in the 70s were counted in their tens and have risen to thousands in the last decade. Most of the money spent on research is at present being channelled towards studies on objective spirituality aiming to demonstrate that spirituality can lead to better health and better lives, ultimately saving money to the tax payer. Going through different categories we learned that the area of ontological spirituality is the most fund-deprived. Here the idea would be to explore the objective existence of the transcendent and our personal relationship with it, potentially leading to objective perhaps even technological benefits derived from it. Ontological spirituality is predicated on intuitions of a moral kind which are inherent in the human as well as other species. Space does not allow me to expand on this but David pointed to studies showing that animals too have a moral framework. This leads to the question, where do these moral intuitions come from? If intuition is authentic then there must be something that grounds it. Spiritual experiences facilitate a direct contact with that ‘something’ and research into those have been taken much more seriously in the last few years as well. Between 1987 and 2000 the number of people who have reported having had spiritual experiences has increased dramatically which shows that people are more willing to disclose their experiences nowadays which must also mean that we as society are more willing to accept these experiences as real. It was a most fascinating and inspiring presentation, and David will absolutely have to come back to expand on this and on his other studies.
The Western Musical Tradition and the Enlightenment: an Experiment in Consciousness
July brought us Chris Todhunter, an architect by profession with interests in music and consciousness. Chris told us the current thinking about the origins of music and mentioned that 2000 year old Egyptian pictures exist depicting the lyre with 5 and 7 strings, which gives some indication of the type of music that might have been played then. Music was used for dancing and bonding as in circle dancing but also engage the emotions and determination in war efforts. Music became formalised with the development of notation by monks around the late 15th C and the structure of music was then able to evolve into melodies. By the time of Bach in the 17th century a revolution was taking place as the rules of harmony were being re-written. The introduction of rules meant that music could be written in a semi-mechanical way, side-lining the need for feelings or even devotion. The courts were demanding ever more music and these rules made it relatively easy for composers to deliver requirements. This is the start of objectification of music. This was however not a universal attitude, around the same time saw the birth of opera as an art form and Monteverdi developed music for the human voice engaging emotion to its fullest degree. We watched a Ted talk given by Michael Tilson Thomas the music director of the san Francisco Symphony, and artistic director of the New World Symphony Orchestra Music and Emotion through Time after which we considered the listening relationship we have ourselves with music. Good music, Chris argues, is the music which brings one to stillness which we experienced as we listened to Schubert’s Quintet in C, a most magnificent and moving piece!
To view the Ted talk shown click on
Questioning Einstein on Science and Religion
In June we hosted a meeting for Ravi Ravindra, honorary member of the SMN and Professor Emeritus of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia where he was for many years professor of Physics, Philosophy and Comparative Religion. Ravi was on his UK lecture tour and we were fortunate to have him during his stop in London. Ravi explored in particular Einstein’s statement that ‘Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind’ and examined how it stands up against the background of the wisdom traditions.
He started by explaining the perspectives of the scientific researcher and the spiritual searcher, who although in different ways have the same attitude towards their quest, understanding existence and reality. Both approach this quest from different perspectives but engage in similar states of mind and faith plays just important a role in the exploration both in science and spirituality. Spirituality explores the inner landscape, whereas science explores the external world. One uses experience, whereas for the other the tool is experiment. Both look for objective rather than subjective (personal) perception, but their vision is different: Max Plank for instance remarked that whatever cannot be measured cannot be real whereas Shankara (9th century CE) remarked that whatever can be measured cannot be real! Thus are the perspectives different! For the Western tradition Ravi quoted the words of St Paul who says that the eyes of the flesh see the things of the flesh and eyes of the Spirit see the things of the Spirit, Spirit here meaning something subtler (more intelligent, more conscious) than the Mind. Many of Einstein’s statements show that he had a profoundly spiritual view of the world and saw science as a spiritual path but by claiming that religion without science is lame, Einstein betrays a lack of understanding of the ‘eye’ of Spirit. Science involves activity whereas for the perception of Spirit, action is irrelevant. ‘Be attentive and do nothing’ ‘ said the Buddha.
The Gift of Alzheimer’s: Heart and Soul Journey
This month Maggie la Tourelle shared with us her experience of accompanying her mother’s Alzheimer’s journey, which she recorded in her book the title of which was the title of the presentation. The book is an in-depth study of her mother’s experience over the last 3.5 years of her life, during which time Maggie wrote a journal of her observations and conversations she had with her mother. Maggie has worked in the field of Holistic Healthcare for 30 years and she used her skills as psychotherapist to listen carefully to her mother and through a mutual opening of heart something special happened between them which allowed Maggie to participate in the process. She was specifically requested by her mother to write this book to ensure that the information, which she knew was important, was made available to others. What transpired in this journey is that although the brain deteriorates and the sufferer becomes less able to communicate, this does not mean that thinking ceases. On the contrary, thoughts seem to become clearer and perception more acute but as Maggie’s mother said ‘ ‘when I am confused, I can’t remember’! Maggie records what can only be described as a mystical process in which her mother experiences another world, which she sometimes can describe with great clarity. Metaphorical language is rich with meaning. The process over these last 3.5 years of her mother’s life included 7 stages during which the soul learned about and experienced other realities gradually disconnecting from the material body in preparation for the final disconnection. There was a gradual loss of ego and personality and eventually she was living completely in the now. There was full awareness of impending death, but no fear. What Maggie learned on this journey with her mother – which she documents in her book – are fascinating examples of transcendental states which parallel those of NDEs and OBEs. They point to a continuation of conscious awareness after death! The book (which can be bought on Amazon) contains many interesting facts, both scientific and general and is well worth reading for an insight into a disease which is so little understood.
Spiritual Experience Today
This month we welcomed Marianne Rankin who is former chair of the Alister Hardy Society (now renamed the AH Society for the Study of Spiritual Experience) and is also the author Introductionof to Religious and Spiritual Experience, a book in which she sets out the field of Religious/Spiritual experience from various perspectives. This evening she expanded on some of them starting with those of William James who in the Gifford lectures set out his own parameters for spiritual/religious experience. She then went on to talk about Alister Hardy, whose research centre – now based University of Wales Trinity Saint David in Lampeter ‘ is home to a repository of accounts of spiritual experiences from people from all over the world. Hardy was a man of science, he was a zoologist and oceanographer who had a deep interest in human nature and the nature of spiritual experience from early on. Having shown this interest at a time when such subjects were frowned upon, he was advised by his professor to build his reputation as a serious scientist first and to explore this field once his credibility as a scientist had been established. This Hardy did, and he became a well respected academic (one of his students was a Richard Dawkins!). The interest in spiritual experiences was probably sparked by some he may have had himself, but it was not until into his eighties that he wrote about them. Hardy’s definition of spiritual experience is ‘ ‘a deep awareness of a benevolent non-physical power which appears to be partly or wholly beyond, and far greater than, the individual self’. Marianne read a few examples of the range of different experiences held in the archive and told us about the ongoing research in various countries. She also spent some time talking about accounts of near-death experiences and mentioned that the archive holds the information from Elisabeth and Peter Fenwick (The SMN’s President)’s research.
Key Themes in Understanding Islam
In March we welcomed Dr. Chris Hewer who has a background in Christian theology and has since 1986 been working in the field of Christian-Muslim relationship. He now lectures on both Christianity and Islam. Following some basic pointers, we entered into a dialogue exploring topics of interest to the small group we had this evening. Chris started by saying that Islam, just as any other religion, cannot be understood in a merely intellectual way, and he wanted to take us on a journey of empathetic, intuitive understanding. He wanted us to feel into what it is like to live and experience life in a Muslim way of seeing things. This was an interesting and exciting new approach, I thought! So he started by explaining that Arabic is a language forged around letter roots, and words are made by adding vowels to these letters. For instance the root SLM conveys harmony and balance, right order, proportion, everything in its right place therefore a sense of safety and security, a sense of peace and justice which can only come about because it is according to a great design plan. So the words Islam, Muslim etc, words made up by this root communicate fundamentally the concepts mentioned above. Islam means everything working according to the great plan. Muslim is the personal archetypal form of the word, something in the state of Islam is Muslim. God creates a Creation in the state of Islam, God creates a Muslim creation. The word Muslim does not apply to humans only, but to the whole of Creation ‘ everything has its natural state. We learned that this understanding existed in the Arab world before the birth of Mohammed, and his mission was to return society, which had lost this vision, to those principles. The Koran is not a book of law but a book of ethical guidance. We heard how Mohammed validates the Koran and the Koran validates Mohammed. There were a number of questions asking for clarification on the concepts of Jihad, Infidels, Love etc within the tradition and were given very clear and helpful explanations. Two hours were not nearly enough to explore all the questions that came up, but they were enough to stimulate a fascinating discussion.
The Healing Voice and Healing the Family Ancestors
Jill Purce uses ancient vocal techniques, the power of group chant and the spiritual potential of the voice as a magical instrument for healing and meditation. She also works on healing and ancestors combining Family Constellations with chant and ceremony to bring healing to her clients.
This evening Jill told us about her earliest experience of the power of chanting when as a small child she was in a boat with her parents during a fierce storm. Three Irish women started to chant and what was intense fear of dying in the storm became transformed into bliss. She became aware of the transformative power of sound and has pursued work with this power in her professional career. Jill studied chanting with Tibetan Lamas and also worked with the German composer Stockhausen and her work has been informed by what she learned from both these sources. Having identified that the world is ‘disenchanted’ Jill developed a way of ‘en-chanting‘ it by developing a particular chant based on the technique of Mongolian overtone chanting, which involves one sole note which encapsulates overtones and which she demonstrated.
Chanting is an effective way of encouraging the mind to be present in meditation which is why chanting is often used as a means to quieten the mind. By getting the group to chant Jill demonstrated that as well as bringing the mind into the present, sound is the quickest way of dissolving separation between people and creating community.
Jill went on to tell us about her work with families and ancestors in which she explores ways in which the familial field has been breached by deaths, abandonment, and other traumas in the recent and distant past and how these affect current generations. She uses the principles of Family Constellation work, whereby acknowledging those events and incorporating them into the family narrative something is healed, almost magically.
Neoplatonism and the Dolphin Paradigm
January 2013 started with a presentation from Dr. Mike King, who following retirement from his academic career is now a free lance writer with many books to his name, most with distinct spiritual angle. Mike started by setting out the place of Neoplatonism in Western philosophy explaining that Neoplatonism is the ‘Via Positiva’ or life affirming branch of spiritual thought as opposed to the ‘Via Negativa’ which is based on asceticism and negation of concepts regarding the nature of the divine. To explain the fortunes of Neoplatonism, Mike chose the evolution of the dolphin from sea to land then to sea animal again as a metaphor to explain his view of how the principles of Neoplatonism flourished then went underground under the power of the Christian Church and resurfaced when that power waned. The dolphin we learned, evolved from a land animal, which itself evolved like the rest of creation, from a sea animal. This land animal returned to the sea taking with him evolutionary advantages such as a social structure and the sonar ability to detect sources of food. In parallel to this metaphor, Neoplatonic thinking went through a similar process by recapitulating the forms or concepts which informed Western thought in the distant past, now equipped with the developments achieved over the years, influencing Christianity as well as science. Recapitulation was a word he used a lot this evening referring to the capacity to enfold the rest of the universe.
Two basic concepts which defined the Renaissance in which Neoplatonism re-flourishes, were both first voiced by Pythagoras (570-495BC). One is the idea of Man being the microcosm of the macrocosm. This idea is reflected in ancient Hermetic knowledge, ‘so above, so below’ ‘ a concept which defines man as the peak of creation and understands the human being as recapitulating the cosmos, both physically, mentally and spiritually. The other idea is the concept of the monad, Leibniz’s legacy par excellence, which Koestler renamed holon and which went on to define Wilber’s thinking. Both those concepts are specifically Western and have influenced current spirituality especially the New Age movement.
Mike King’s website is